That’s because the Tigers had an early exit in the FCIAC boys basketball tournament.
Although the teams entered the contest with similar seeds (the Tigers ranked fifth and Central fourth), similar winning streaks (the Tigers six straight and Central five) and identical records (16-4 each), Central turned in a commanding performance and led through all four quarters.
“It was a shame that one of these teams wasn’t going to get out of the weekend,” said Central coach Barry McLeod. “That’s what happens in a four-five [seed] game like that. You got identical records, and being on that side (of the draw) is not easy. But we played good; we were unselfish from start to finish, and we relied on quickness.”
That quickness turned out to be a key factor in the game, as it gave the Hilltoppers a decisive edge in the rebound battle. “We hustled on the boards, got some put-back rebounds, and that was big,” said McLeod.
With 4:45 remaining in the first quarter, Central’s ShaQuan Bretoux, who had 20 points on the night, jumped to the rim and tipped in a wayward shot to make the score 10-6. It was a sight that would become commonplace by the end of the game.
“The lack of rebounding was extremely frustrating,” said Ridgefield head coach Carl Charles. “That gave them a lot of easy points tonight. We give up 72 points. We’re not happy, because that’s just not our way to play D. Defense isn’t finished until we get a rebound, and we didn’t do that. We got out-rebounded, and it cost us a lot of points inside.”
The Tigers chased the Hilltoppers throughout the entire game. They’d draw their closest in the second half when, with 2:47 left on the clock, Ridgefield’s Matt Brennan cut through the defense and hit a layup to make it 26-24.
But the Hilltoppers then outscored the Tigers, 9-3, to close out the half, making it 35-27 at the break. Six of those points came from Marcus Blackwell, whose buzzer-beating three-pointer was especially demoralizing.
“Blackwell’s the man,” said McLeod. “He’s been doing that for us the whole year. He’s only a sophomore. He’s not afraid to get his nose dirty. His offense, his defense — he takes charges and makes foul shots — he does whatever you want.”
In the third quarter the Tigers kept struggling to get their offense clicking, although Steidl, who had 29 points and was the game’s top scorer, contributed eight points in the period. In the closing seconds of the third, Jeff Racy hit a three pointer to make it 54-41. The shot was notable for being the sharp-shooter’s only basket of the game, which in itself testified to the Hilltoppers’ strong defensive play: Racy had six threes and 24 points in Ridgefield’s previous game against Westhill.
“Our quickness enables us to get out there, locate and find the shooters,” said McLeod. “The key is to get out there, and, if you can get out on the shooters, disrupt their movement.”
“The problem is they were pressing us, and really a lot of our shots were against the press,” said Charles.
By the fourth quarter the Tigers were desperate to find their offensive rhythm and forced shots and passes in an effort to initiate a comeback. The result was an increased turnover rate.
“We had 15 turnovers, with a lot of them coming in the fourth quarter,” said Charles.
Steidl did manage to score five points in the final 80 seconds, but by that time Central had booked its place in the conference semifinals.
“You know we were lucky. We beat a good team, and I’m sure they’re going to do well in the [state] tournament,” said McLeod.
“We just need to get back to basics,” said Charles. “We’ll try to regroup for the state tournament. We’ll take a couple days off, get the legs refreshed, and then we’ll get back to work. I’ve got to try to find a scrimmage, and we’ll go from there.”